The film of The Help came out this weekend, and I know everybody else is going to be talking about it, and it’s my day today, and it’s been on my mind, so why not?
I will try not to spoil too much, but if you’re trying to stay pure before you read/see – you’ve been warned.
First, the book.
I understand why it’s popular and I also understand why there’s a backlash against it. I have to say it – it made me uncomfortable.
Now, uncomfortable is an emotion, not an objective criticism. And I don’t read books for comfort most of the time, I read for passion and thrills and to live a certain experience. Which can all be comforting, in their way.
I know a lot of people feel passionately about this book and I don’t mean to undercut that. But I’ll just try to describe the discomfort I felt about it.
There’s been a lot of criticism about the dialect, especially Aibileen’s. I didn’t mind the dialect at first – I love figuring out phonetically how people are speaking, myself, I’m actually a little obsessed with phonetics, and I know I’ve been guilty of going overboard with it in my own writing on occasion. But as I kept reading and got to the white characters…. who were portrayed with no such dialect at all…
Well, to write in such a broad way for an African-American character and not at all for white Mississippians… who have some of the deepest accents in the South….
But what made me most uncomfortable about the book was that all of these maids ended up in the service of a white woman again, to get “her” book written. It made me feel guilty of being patronizing by association.
And I think a whole lot was left out.
Now, I know perfectly well that as a California native I cannot possibly understand the relationship between white children and the African-American women who raised them (Southern friends of mine say, “My other mom”). In fact, there are a whole lot of things about the South I will never understand, but that’s another post.
And as a white woman I have no business speculating about what was or was not true to the actual experience of the African-American women portrayed in the book.
But even so, I can’t believe that the depths of anger that must, must have been there, and are still there, were adequately portrayed.
I think it’s a good story. I think Stockett is talented, and she’s obviously created some powerful characters. I would rather have read this subject from an African-American point of view. That’s not Stockett’s fault. Absolutely, obviously, she wrote the book from her heart. But I felt that as the author she was offering a forgiveness to the white characters in the book that is not hers to offer.
And I sure would like to read a book with an alternative POV now.
The movie was less uncomfortable for me, possibly because I knew what I was going into, and a lot because of three key performances.
– Viola Davis as Aibileen. I would camp out overnight to see this woman read the phone book. I think she’s one of the major actors of our time. It is her movie, period. The depths of emotion – and emotional truth – that I didn’t find in the book I did find in her performance, and she has the authority to portray it.
– Emma Stone as Skeeter. Ever since Zombieland I’ve been seeing everything she’s in. The most exciting young actress working in Hollywood, I think, she’s stunning. And while I’m sure this was how she was directed, too, she knows this is not her story. I had huge problems with the Skeeter character in the book; I don’t think she ever got how irrelevant she was in the bigger picture. The movie cuts her role down to a more proportionate size, and portrays the character more as a journalist simply recording stories instead of acting as if this book is all her doing, and Emma Stone has moments – I felt – of reflecting the shame of her situation. It’s not really there in the book or the movie, but I felt it in her.
Btw, I have to say it for those who were here for my post 2 weeks ago: Tom Cruise doesn’t hold a candle to Emma Stone in the “too pretty to play the character” category, but it didn’t matter a bit, here (because Emma Stone is one of those actresses who leaves room for an audience to inhabit her AND her emotion and ferocious mental life sort of overwhelm her beauty). As a matter of fact, Viola Davis is way too pretty to play Aibileen. Pretty much the definition of Hollywood is “too pretty”.
– Bryce Dallas Howard as Hilly. What a great villain this is! In my opinion Hilly is half of why this book has become a classic, and Howard doesn’t shy away from the viciousness. It’s a comic character, but the has her moments of wonderfully ordinary evil. I sure hope she made some people uncomfortable.
I think I liked the movie better than the book for the first half (and the dialect issues are much less apparent, partly because you can hear the broad accents in ALL of the characters) and I was totally with it, and also appreciating the adaptation – there were some very deft, concise additions and staging to underline the real stakes. Until that midpoint where
SPOILER (although the trailer does it anyway)
The maids agree to tell their stories.
And then the action just kind of stopped. It was an interesting thing to see, because theoretically the cuts that writer/director Tate Taylor made should have made the story play better, but actually nothing much happens in the second half of the book, and that just gets more and more obvious in the movie. The film gets a little embarrassing as it works the pie joke way too many times over a solid fifteen minutes, and the big reveal of how and why Skeeter’s beloved housemaid “left the family” is a pale shadow of what happens in the book, an awkward and unconvincing scene (it’s also staged in a room that is way too small for the action, a very strange choice. I could barely watch the action for trying to figure out why the scene was taking place where it was.) Also in the film the Millie and Celia subplot is cut down so much that I didn’t feel much investment in it. And unfortunately Millie’s character loses the internal life that she had in the book.
But the truth is nothing much happens in the second half of the book. So even when you cut out all the obvious fat, when you put it up on screen almost everything feels like filler. To ME. Until the end, where
Aibileen has a great final confrontation with Hilly – you can see her talking to her just as any one of the seventeen children she raised, and to me, that really worked, emotionally – it takes a lot to make me cry but I was wrecked.
I don’t know, this is hard. I have to think it’s always a good thing when a popular work of art puts a spotlight on racism; my discomfort is the feeling that the book and maybe the film are more of a feel-good bromide than any meaningful step toward – even a discussion that might change attitudes. But I could be totally wrong; maybe both the book and the film are doing good where good needs to be done.
And it does force me to think about the way I portray race in my own books, and how I’m falling short. And that – is good.
Anyway, Rati, if you’re up for it – what do you think?